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Inland cruise market strengthens with new operator, more boats

Jul 30, 2015 01:09 PM
Western river cruise boat American Empress arrives at Portland, Ore. The American Queen Steamboat Co. vessel entered service in 2014 amid an upswing in demand for inland cruising in the U.S.

Courtesy American Queen Steamboat Co.

Western river cruise boat American Empress arrives at Portland, Ore. The American Queen Steamboat Co. vessel entered service in 2014 amid an upswing in demand for inland cruising in the U.S.

The rebirth of the American inland cruise industry has attracted a major international river cruise operator to New Orleans, in addition to newbuilds from established operators.

In February, Los Angeles-based Viking River Cruises announced that it will establish a cruise base in New Orleans and build six 300-passenger vessels over three years, with service beginning in 2017.

So far in 2015, American Cruise Lines has launched American Eagle, the first of four planned newbuilds for Mississippi, Columbia and Snake river cruises, bringing its fleet to seven vessels that also cruise in Florida, Maine, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

The industry revived in 2011 when American Queen Steamboat Co. invested $21 million to purchase and refit American Queen. The overnight river cruise industry virtually disappeared in 2009 when three large cruise operators tied up seven vessels in a recession-related slowdown.

State officials said Viking’s investment will create 416 new jobs for Louisiana-based vessel and operations crews and 368 indirect jobs. Viking, founded in 1997, operates 60 vessels on rivers in Europe, Egypt, China and Southeast Asia.

The existing U.S. river cruise lines welcome Viking’s presence in the market.

“It will bring much better awareness of the U.S. domestic river cruise market as Americans are learning they no longer have to go to Europe, Russia or China to experience a river cruise,” said Ted Sykes, president and chief operating officer at American Queen Steamboat.

Viking plans an announcement later this year to publicize specifics about the new itineraries, ship design and an official launch date, said spokeswoman Amanda Whitver.

Overall, the appetite for U.S. river cruises remains strong. In 2013, American Cruise Lines announced it had experienced 25 percent growth in passenger traffic over the previous year, driving its newbuild program.

The nation’s newest riverboat, American Eagle, is christened at New Orleans in April. It is the first of four new vessels planned by American Cruise Lines.

Peter Knego

“Demand on the Mississippi is high, and the Columbia River has not seen a new riverboat in many years,” said Timothy Beebe, vice president of American Cruise Lines.

Staterooms on the Mississippi and other rivers seem to be in high demand. For instance, American Queen Steamboat is seeing a high number of repeat guests who want to experience river cruising for a second or third time.

“Our record holder is a person who has now sailed with us 14 times and has eight more sailings currently booked,” Sykes said. “For us, it is our fourth year operating the American Queen and our second year operating the American Empress. We are very pleased with the loads we are carrying on both the AQ and the AE.”

American Queen, the largest riverboat ever built, runs on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. American Empress serves the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Smaller domestic operators round out the U.S. overnight cruise industry. Blount Small Ship Adventures operates two vessels with custom features such as a retractable pilothouse that allows the vessels under bridges for an exclusive Erie Canal cruise. St. Lawrence Cruises operates the 321-ton, 66-passenger Canadian Empress on the St. Lawrence River.

The 88-year-old Delta Queen, perhaps the most famous riverboat, languishes in a Houma, La., shipyard waiting for congressional action that would allow the last wooden paddle boat to carry overnight passengers again.

Cruise operators routinely advertise openings for licensed and unlicensed mariners, from deck hands to masters and chief engineers.

“For the American Queen, experienced steam engineers are becoming harder to find, and the pool of deck officers narrows for the American Queen since she is an unlimited tonnage vessel,” Sykes said. “Her rated steam plant horsepower is not high compared to the industry as a whole, so that opens up the pool for the engineering licenses. The American Empress is a 296-ton vessel with a diesel electric propulsion plant, which opens her up to a larger pool of mariners that can cover the license requirements.”

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